Students arrive in Baltimore, Md., wearing embroidered jackets with logos and names stitched in bright colors on their sleeves. They’re members of different teams, but this isn’t an athletic event. They’re together to compete in CyberPatriot’s National Youth Cyber Competition, the largest middle school and high school cyber defense competition in the United States.
The Air Force Association (AFA) created CyberPatriot’s National Youth Cyber Education Program in 2009 to inspire high school students to pursue careers in cybersecurity. The program has grown exponentially since then with more than 4400 teams taking part in the program last year. (The 2017 program kicks off in October.) At the center of CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, which puts teams of middle school and high school students in the position of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company. In the rounds of competition, teams are given a set of virtual images that represent operating systems. They have six hours to find cybersecurity vulnerabilities within the images and harden the system while maintaining critical services. Teams compete within their state and region, and the top teams in the nation earn all-expenses paid trips to the National Finals Competition where they can earn national recognition and scholarships.
Bernie Skoch, CyberPatriot national commissioner, stresses the importance of cybersecurity training as the number of breaches become more common. “The annual worldwide loss to cyber crime is estimated at $600B,” he said. “We need an innate capability here in the United States where we create a cadre of cyber defenders.”
Teams compete in three divisions: Open (high schools), All Service (community service and citizenship programs, such as Junior ROTC), and Middle School. Results from preliminary rounds are recorded in the central CyberPatriot scoring system, and at the end of the semifinals, the top 30 teams are invited to the national competition. There, they compete face-to-face to defend virtual networks, reducing known vulnerabilities like weak passwords and firewall issues while protecting critical services such as email and web servers from attacks. CyberPatriot provides students with a practical application and experience, helping them understand how they can establish a career in cybersecurity and getting them excited about the field. One of the key takeaways from the CyberPatriot experience is that the camaraderie built within teams—and among competitors—also drives enthusiasm for STEM careers. Much like the real-world experiences of Cisco engineers who collaborate on major projects for customers, students experience success working together toward a common goal.
How Cisco Supports CyberPatriot
Cisco’s initial involvement in CyberPatriot began when volunteer engineers built a local area network for the CyberPatriot IV National Finals in March 2012. Based on that experience, Cisco approached AFA to suggest that while the desktop-based competition presented a good opportunity to expose students to broader challenges in the cyber world, as the number and variety of connected devices increases, so do the number of potential cyber threats.
Cisco asked to incorporate networking fundamentals into the competition to give students knowledge to protect desktop computers and newer mobile devices against cyber attacks. Being a career IT guy himself, Bernie Skoch was thrilled with the idea, and Cisco components were integrated into CyberPatriot. Cisco’s role and content has grown in subsequent competition seasons.
After the first exhibition, there was also tremendous enthusiasm for the Cisco curriculum, which leverages tools developed for the Cisco Networking Academy program. This enthusiasm was a springboard to establish the Cisco Networking Challenge as a key component of the National Finals, complete with trophies for the top teams.
Cisco also supports CyberPatriot by encouraging employees to volunteer, and then supporting them through Time2Give. Last year, more than 100 Cisco employees were involved with CyberPatriot, acting as mentors and teaching students about networking security skills both onsite at local middle schools and high schools and through Cisco WebEx. Cisco employees (or anyone interested in getting involved) can sign up as a CyberPatriot volunteer.
In a recent survey of CyberPatriot graduates by the AFA, 80 percent of respondents indicated they will pursue a two- or four-year degree and plan to study cybersecurity, computer science, or another STEM field; the national average is 13 percent. Cisco’s support and Cisco employee volunteers are helping CyberPatriot impact future generations, giving them valuable knowledge and tools that will prepare them to defend against the growing number of cyber threats.